Amazing articles on just about every subject...


( Originally Published 1893 )

THE set and traditional forms of letters allow so little scope for artistic variety, that however interesting the subject-matter of a manuscript may be, we sometimes feel a sense of disappointment and even of distaste as we turn the page of a bare written volume, in which the writing is perhaps to us not easily legible, and design and colour have no place. Our interest and pleasure is at least doubled when the setting of the record is itself beautiful. Even the red rubrics, the plain alternate blue and red letters common in headlines in the fourteenth century, relieve the eye ; but when the capital letters are floriated, when the margins are filled with leaf-and-branch work, and when every few pages exhibit a delicately painted miniature, some scene from the artist's own experience,—a market-place, it may be, with a housewife and loom within a doorway, a blacksmith at his forge, and the neighbours chaffering and bargaining in the open square, above which tower the town-hall and cathedral of his native town ; or some banquet at the court of Burgundy in the fifteenth century, with its parade of magnificence, the gorgeous hangings and crowds of long-slippered pages, but (as we should think) its essential discomfort ; or, again, a religious scene rivalling in effect and minuteness of detail the greater pictures of Italian artists, then, indeed, we feel that the accessories have invested the written page with a beauty and attractiveness beyond the powers of a scribe alone. In this short chapter we can only touch on some striking points in the development of this fascinating art of illumination, till it reached its zenith in the last half of the fifteenth century.

The idea of ornamenting books in one way or another is as old as books themselves ; nevertheless, it is generally true that the earliest writing is the plainest and freest from accessory decoration ; thus the Herculanean Papyri, the Codex Alexandrinus in the British Museum, the Codex Amiatinus, show a minimum of colour ; and in the earliest MSS. there is nothing to mark even the beginning of a new sentence or chapter. The lines along which development took place were natural and simple. First, certain letters (usually the first letter of a new sentence, but sometimes the first letter of the line which followed the commencement of a sentence) were made simply larger than the rest, and perhaps coloured. Next, the ends and corners of such letters were exaggerated, and ran over into the margin, until in course of time the whole margin was filled with offshoots from one or more large letters. Lastly, the margin was formally separated from the letters, and received a wholly independent design. Meanwhile room was found, either within a letter, or about a margin, or in the text, or on a separate page, for a miniature, the highest form of illumination, which in the best examples rivals in completeness and power the finest paintings of picture galleries, though the scale is necessarily much smaller.

Before we treat of styles, we may premise some-thing of the conditions and materials in which illuminators worked. The illuminatores, or monks set to the task of ornamenting books in a monastery, used the scriptorium in common with the scribes, and were hardly distinguished in discipline from the latter. The painters of miniatures, introducing elaborate scenes and human figures, must at all times have been treated with more respect than the designers of capital letters, marginal ornaments, rubrications, and headlines, and we often find two quite different hands on the same page, showing that the higher work (and remuneration) were reserved for special artists. It is very probable that by far the greatest amount of book-ornamentation was done in religious houses, especially in Benedictine and Dominican establishments. The evidence for this is not only the preponderance of religious subjects, but also that the name of nearly every miniaturist of importance, till say A.D. 1450, betokens either a monk or an artist working for ecclesiastical purposes.

The colours used—which were made with great care, as the numerous treatises on their preparation evince—were primarily gold, red, and blue, less commonly green, purple, yellow, white, and black. The only preparation which needs special description here is the gold. When we read of a codex aureus or argenteus (a manuscript in gold or silver), we must understand one in which, not the background, but the letters, are of those substances. And usually, especially about the time of Charles the Great, and, as a revival, in the fifteenth century, it will be found in such MSS., that to heighten the effect of these colours the whole leaf or leaves of parchment have been dyed a deep purple. The effect is extremely fine ; and not only gold, but red and white paint also show well on it. This dyeing is not often found between the periods mentioned above. Gold has been laid on in different ways at different times. It is a peculiar fact that it is not found at all in the British Isles before the tenth century. Until about the twelfth century it was laid on in powder, and always, if closely looked at, has a ruddy appearance. The description of a book as aureis literis rutilans (with a ruddy glow from its golden letters) precisely gives the impression to the eye. But after that century gold was laid on with extraordinary care, and burnished, producing the glittering effect we often see in medieval illumination, in which a single page may contain more than a hundred separate and delicate pieces of burnished and shining gold. First, a peculiar light pink clay, which was often brought from the East, and much prized in monasteries, was placed on the parchment, after the design had been drawn in outline ; then size was laid on it, next gold-leaf, and, finally, the gold was burnished by hand with an agate. This one would naturally expect to be done before other colours were laid on, since otherwise the rough action of rubbing would spoil the surrounding part ; and it is actually proved by the not infrequent occurrence of an unfinished book, in which the design is found extending farthest in the volume, the clay next, and the burnished gold some pages later than the last occurrence of other colours.

Styles of Illumination

I. The Early Period.—We have no examples of classical illumination left : nothing whatever, in fact, from classical times except descriptions of, or allusions to, the art of painting books in classical authors. The nearest approaches we can make are in the Pompeian wall-paintings, and the coloured wooden mummy cases from Egypt. But we have very early MSS. with paintings quite clearly based on classical models as known from sculpture. The two early MSS. of Virgil in the Vatican, and the famous Iliad in the Ambrosian Library at Milan, will serve as examples, all being not later than the fourth century of our era. The characteristics of these are simplicity and directness in aim, with no straining after effect, and few accessories ; plenty of colour, but very little shading. It may be said that ornamented borders and elaborate initial letters are quite rare. The background is often an olive green, and the border is noticeable, consisting of a plain band or bands of colour carried as a rectangle round the picture, sometimes with gold lozenges. The faces and poses are those with which we are familiar in classical statues and coins. The Ashburnham Pentateuch (now restored to Paris) is a good example of the style as produced on the Continent in the seventh century, the ` dark age ' of arts and literature in every part of Europe except Ireland. In this particular case, though the art can only be called debased, the brilliance of the colours and boldness of design make it a magnificent volume, and one of the last of the grander examples of the classical style. This survival of the style till the time of Charles the Great is the one great feature of early illuminations. But there was another element which affected the whole of Europe—the Byzantine—as especially seen in the almost universal type of the Evangelists. The pose of the figure, the chair, the footstool, the writing-desk, and bookstand, are of the Byzantine or Greek kind, and constantly recur in European MSS. of the Early and Medieval Periods.

2. First Medieval Period.—This begins in Ireland in the sixth, and on the Continent in the eighth century, when we first find ornaments and designs independent of Roman style, although the famous Terences of the Vatican and the National Library at Paris show that the older kind survived for many years later. Its close may be placed in the thirteenth century. Ireland leads the way, although every product of the school of ornamentation which must have existed in the sixth century has perished. Still, the earliest Irish MS. we know, the Cathach Psalter, written in about A.D. 600, already exhibits at least two of the peculiarities of the Irish and (later) Hiberno-Saxon school—the rows of red dots round a design, and the dragon's head. It is in the second half of the seventh century that we find the Book of Kells, the glory of Trinity College, Dublin. The taste and delicacy, the originality, the elaboration of the colouring and design, place it among the wonders of the world. Among the other peculiarities of the style—the origin of which is still a matter of dispute —are the Z-patterns (fine lines arranged diagonally, like natural and reversed Zeds combined) ; inter-laced ribbon-work ; a profusion of monstrous forms of birds, snakes, lizards, and hounds, generally extravagantly elongated and knotted ; and certain spiral forms given off from a central point, and each in turn giving off an adjacent spiral, the general type being invariably a combination of C-shapes, and never of S-forms. But the limitations of excellence are also obvious. When the human figure or historical scenes are attempted, the effect is poor and often barbarous, and even trees and flowers were avoided by Irish artists ; so that our judgment on the Irish school must be that it exhibits, not the highest form of art, but the highest development of that particular grade of art in which regularity and minuteness (what may be called geometrical ingenuity) hold a more important place than free drawing from nature.

As it is hard to find any certain antecedents of Irish art, so it is hard to find any succeeding continental ornamentation free from Irish influence. It was, as Sir E. Maunde Thompson says, ` the origin of the systems of illumination which sprang up on the Continent, and notably of the Carlovingian.' The influence of Charles the Great on handwriting (see p. 28) was hardly greater than on the style of ornamentation, so that the Irish school contributed very largely through Alcuin (d. 804) to the style of the one great continental school of the time. But if this is true of the ornament, it was the classical school which supplied the study of the human figure, and again it was the Byzantine which is to be traced in certain parts of the border (such as the arcade and many of the architectural details), and in the extended use of gold. It is now that we first find books lavishly and systematically embellished. The Carolingian style may be said to have died out in the tenth century.

In the period from A.D. 900 to 1250 we find several well-marked tendencies. The form of the letter is regarded less and the painting more, so that we find designs actually obscuring the underlying shape ; the border is no longer straight and plain, but freer, and with architectural or other design. The miniature grows from a single figure to a scene of more or less complexity. A scene within a letter is not found earlier than the eleventh century. There is a well-known type of Latin Bible found especially in French and English work, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, showing usually a minute hand, double columns in a page, and initial letters which are coloured with straight, stiff outline, very long, and with divisions and geometrical designs or medalions within these stiff bounding lines ; blue and red being the prevailing colours, with some gold.

There are some curious points in the comparative development of national styles.. On the Continent, the hundred years nearest to A.D. 1000 are years of small progress in the art of illumination ; but in England that same period produces a truly national style, neither Irish nor continental. There is outline drawing of figures with exaggerated hands and feet, elaborate but formal drapery, and an unmistakable cast of countenance. Late in the eleventh century this style dies out in England under continental influence, and sometimes we can see the two forces almost equally balanced in a single manuscript. In fact, from the Norman Conquest to A.D. 1200, English style is hardly found ; but the seesaw, so to say, with the Continent is still preserved, for just at that time the French, Italian and German national styles are forming.

From about 1300 to about 1350 there is a distinctive East Anglian school of high excellence, which is seen at its best in four Psalters, in the British Museum, Bodleian, Dyson Perrin's and Fitzwilliam (Cambridge) libraries, and known as the Arundel, Ormesby, Gorleston and St. Omer Psalters. The style cannot here be described in detail, but several illustrations will be found in S. C. Cockerell's Gorleston Psalter, 1907. Some authorities claim this period as the brightest in the history of English illumination, in view not only of this special school, but of such magnificent MSS. as Queen Mary's Psalter, one of the great treasures of the British Museum both for the beauty and the extent of its illuminations.

3. The best Period (A.D. 1250-1550).-Probably the finest examples of illumination are to be found in the fifteenth century in France, Italy, England, and the Netherlands, though some still prefer the costly, magnificent and florid ornamentation of the first quarter of the sixteenth century. The art is, however, generally in decline after about A.D. 1480.

This latest period of European art, from A.D. 1250 onward, is as well marked by the progress of the border as by any single feature. First we find a letter, pure and simple, within the limits of the written page, with the exception of a simple excrescence, like a pendant, encroaching on the margin, as in the French Bibles, described on p. 63. Next, the pendant grows to a leafy branch ; and even by the end of the thirteenth century we may find this branch running completely round the text, either as a narrow formal stern, usually painted in two colours, with a few angular leaves ; or more artistically treated as a natural branch, with leaves and animals or grotesques intertwined among the boughs. But still the border grows out of the initial letter, and is not substantial and complete in itself. Next, in the fourteenth century we find this stem becoming a solid border, throwing out leaves and buds, and making itself almost a separate thing, though still formally growing out of the letter. The excessive use of blue and red, alternate or in any combination, is a general mark of this period. Lastly, when we come to the fifteenth century, the border becomes wholly detached from the initial letter, and indeed is often the work of a different hand. Now it is distinct, the border is treated separately in various ways, shortly to be described, while fruit, birds, butterflies, and flowers, drawn from nature, abound.

Two specially English coloured ornaments may be noticed as belonging to fourteenth century art : a tassel-ornament of red hair lines, with green freely used in the body ; and a border of stem and leaves, throwing off thin twisted tendrils with gold balls at end, a characteristic shared with Italy which lasted till the middle of the fifteenth century. With respect to the miniatures of the period, except for a set-back during the second half of the fourteenth century in England, we find a general advance from formality to the truest study of inanimate and animate nature, ending with veritable pictures. One test of this advance is appreciation of the principles of perspective ; for not till after the beginning of the fifteenth century do we find true perspective throughout the picture. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries France and (within France) Paris are facile principes in the art of illumination, and a few designs, found chiefly in French art, may be mentioned. In the former century a favourite background is formed by a diaper or diamond pattern of alternate colours, blue and red, or blue and gold. In the next century we find at least four general kinds of fine French work : floriated, where flowers and birds are painted in natural arrangement ; ivy-leaf, when stems are found, thin or thick, throwing out ivy leaves of gold or other colour with some tendrils (see Plate VI.) ; line and leaf, where the stem is a hair line only, but still enters into the design as an integral part, the leaves being as in the preceding style ; and geometrical, in which the whole border is divided into pieces by symmetrical lines, each piece being separately filled up with ornament. German art is singularly heavy and formal, and if we judge by style, about one century behind the rest of Western Europe in development at each period. Italian is the most vigorous and marked style after French and English, and in many ways follows the lines of its schools of painting. In it until the fourteenth century borders seem hardly to be used as an artistic feature at all ; marked characteristics after A.D. 1300 are a small gold disc with tendrils radiating from it, and white bands interlacing in the old Irish style.

It is hoped that these few and vague words on a subject which cannot be properly treated without more detail and without coloured illuminations, may suggest lines of investigation to be followed out as opportunity offers : see a list of selected works on the subject in Appendix C.

Home | More Articles | Email: